Willy Hernangomez has graduated from “potential second-round steal” to “nearly guaranteed second-round steal” over the span of about a month.
At the start of the season, you could see flashes of the intriguing skillset that led the front office to trade two second-round picks for his rights during the 2015 draft. But each beautiful post move came with a mind-numbing turnover or defensive error. And really, that was OK; after all, he's 22 years old, playing his first season in the NBA.
As the games pile up, it's become clear that Hernangomez is the type of player who learns quickly and focuses on improving his weaknesses, attributes that are insanely important for young players. The defense is night and day, although he's still got a ton of work to do, and his offensive skillset continues to impress. Calling him a potential starter seemed premature a month ago; now, it's a legitimate question. He’s a walking, talking, woman-swooning testament to the value of basketball IQ, feel, and skill compared to pure athleticism.
He's unquestionably the best and most versatile center on the team, at least on the offensive end. Joakim Noah wants to shoot the rock like Frank Isola wants to write a glowing review, while Kyle O'Quinn specializes in random early clock midrangers and offensive rebounding alone. Willy plays with a brand of savvy that you don't see often; it's rare for anyone, let alone a rookie. He keeps the ball moving constantly, which is contagious, and leaves extra time on the shot clock for the team to find a good shot. It also keeps the defense from resetting; hesitations allow a scrambling defense to recover, nullifying the advantage an offense has built up over the course of a possession. You know how O'Quinn holds the ball, mentally checks if he turned off the oven at home, and debates whether or not he should shoot a 20 footer? That doesn't happen with Willy.
It's just one of those subtle things that make a difference in a game predicated on efficiency. That ball movement is an extension of his overall offensive mindset — the dude moves like one of his youth coaches told him that he would literally die if he stays within one square meter for more than two seconds. Focus on Willy for a possession, and you'll see him setting screens and moving all over the place. This kind of activity pressures a defense, and it can also lead to easy opportunities via early offense.
Because of how quickly Lee and Hernangomez got in position, the help defender is out of position from the start. They had no chance; the Celtics defense was Viggo Tarasov, and Hernangomez was John Wick. Hernangomez reads the defense and slips the screen, giving him an easy, relaxing finish through Kelly Olynyk, who definitely doesn't wear deodorant.
Of course, it helps that Willy loves to set good screens. He's a strong dude who sets with a wide base, making it difficult to navigate for opponents (it would help if Jennings and Rose could do a better job setting up those screens, but you'd have more luck asking Melo to dunk over LeBron on Saturday). He's already added some new wrinkles, like flipping the direction of his screen at the last second; he'll also bring a second screen when defenders aren't expecting it. Most importantly, he's already well on his way to mastering the art of the "illegal" screen that refs never actually call.
That's all well and good, but there's a reason you don't hear draft experts talking about a prospects screening ability coming out of college. It's the sort of thing anyone should be able to do (although Kristaps occasionally does his best to prove otherwise). What separates Willy is what comes after the screen.
Willy is relatively groundbound, but he gets by as a finisher thanks to his soft touch, good hands, fantastic timing, and overall IQ (i.e. using the rim to protect the ball from a shotblocker). As far as I can tell, he's ambidextrous, and his footwork helps him as a roll man just as much as it helps him on the low block. What makes Willy so exciting, and somewhat unique, is his feel for the game.
He excels when it comes to filling space intelligently. His off ball movement generates layups that look easy, but they also belie the mental IQ behind it. Moving into the correct space is good, but doing so at the right time is what allows a player to reach new heights. He's great at feeling for small creases that he can pry open with his strength, and it constantly generates chaos for opponents. If he sees his defender helping off, he'll use the distraction to secure positioning on the glass; once he’s picked a spot, his bulk makes it really difficult to get him out of that space. And that’s before he breaks out all the tiny pushes and subtle shoves that fill up a great rebounders repertoire. Even when he doesn't personally secure a board, Hernangomez is constantly tipping the ball around, making it difficult for teams to corral the rock and push the pace. He's swallowing up offensive rebounds on 12.7% of misses, a number basically equal to the career average of Joakim Noah. That's impressive. On the defensive glass? 27.8% of available rebounds are accounted for, which leads the team (caveat: mostly playing against bench units).
Kinda goes without saying, but Hernangomez is already a treat to watch on the low block. Some of the footwork he's shown off is truly magnificent, and with time, it can become a vital weapon. He's freakin’ gigantic, and he takes advantage of his ability to score with either hand just like he does as a roll man. Despite the "decline" of low post bangers in the NBA meta-game, there's still value to dudes who can take you to school on the block. Teams will quickly learn that switching those aforementioned awesome screens is a bad idea; do so, and you're gonna get a whole bunch of this:
When opponents aren't switching, it opens up the offense and gives the coach more options for his offensive sets (as opposed to, say, a Porzingis screen, which opponents generally switch pretty liberally).
Once Hernangomez develops his midrange a little more (44% from 10-16 feet as of today), he'll probably expand that post game to include face ups from the elbow. There's no guarantee he ever gets to that point, but from my (extremely biased) eye, it looks like Willy rushes those shots a little too often. Typical rookie stuff. Extending that range will be huge for him as we move forward, though; with a midrange jumper, let alone three point range, an already incredible fit with Porzingis would become even more intriguing.
Of course, he’s still a rookie, so here's the part where I harp on the bad shit he does in a cursory attempt to show the smallest bit of objectivity. Hernangomez is often careless with the ball, which is expected (he peaked at an absurd 20% turnover rate, down to 18.3%). For a fairly low usage center, that's just brutal. Brandon Jennings’ TOV is at 18.9%, and he's a turnover machine; Willy doesn't have ball as much as Jennings, so an identical turnover rate is a bigger blemish than whatever the hell lives on Mo Speights’ head. Those turnovers are likely the biggest reason his minutes have been spotty. Some are a symptom of another issue — Willy occasionally predetermines his moves, leading to plays I'll generously call non-ideal.
His willingness to sling the rock, combined with the vision and instincts he shows in the process, is part of what makes him so intriguing; it's also another piece of the turnover puzzle. They look pretty when it actually works, but far too often, the ball ends up in the hands of a defender. On top of that, he has some physical limitations — he lacks vertical burst, and he’s slow to get in the air, which can occasionally get him in trouble. Ultimately, his physical traits aren't much of a hurdle to overcome on offense (look at Willy's most common player comparison, Marc Gasol), but it's a bigger problem on defense.
Fulfilling a tradition of low expectations for young European white dudes, Willy was advertised as a bad defender coming into the league. He's not as bad as I expected (which doesn't say much), but that lack of explosive burst makes him an inconsistent rim protector. Naturally, he's also pretty bad at managing space in the pick and roll. His defensive decision making will improve over time (more on that below), but his lack of agility and explosion makes it hard to say he'll ever turn into a good pick and roll defender. It's possible, as defense from the center position is largely dependent positioning and defensive intelligence, but it's far from probable. Plus, in this day and age, big men are expected to get out on the perimeter, and early returns imply that he’ll probably struggle to do so if asked (he actually had a nice hedge and recover last night, but that was against Brooklyn, which is functionally a D-League team).
There have been early signs that are encouraging for his growth on that end, though. The most obvious is the extent to which Hernangomez has adopted this roster's greatest nemesis (not including those that contain the words "pick", "roll", or "defense"); VERTICALITY.
That's not all, though. This little gem from wayyyyyyy early in the season, in the first matchup against the Lakers, shows what's so great about Hernangomez. The Lakers ran an Iverson backdoor counter for Lou Williams in the first half, and it caught Willy sleeping; he was in primary help position, and you can see him comically coming to that same realization long after the play was already decided.
Since that got a dunk, and the Knicks are generally incompetent, the Lakers went back to a slight variation on that same set once Willy came back in (for those curious, it's the Iverson throwback counter). This time...this time, Willy saw it coming, and played it absolutely perfectly against one of the best bench scorers in the league.
That is a player learning within a singular game. And that's not the only time it's happened. Against the Wizards this week, Hernangomez recognized a particular alignment and pointed at acknowledged defensive delinquent Brandon Jennings, clearly trying to communicate that a pin down was coming. The screen came; Jennings, of course, did not recognize the play. Nor did he understand what Hernangomez was going on about. His man, Bradley Beal, got a wide open pull up midrange jumper. But what’s important is the recognition; to see that stuff in such a young guy is beyond encouraging.
This guy learns fast. And that's pretty much exactly what you want to see out of a young piece. At his peak, assuming that he reaches it, he really could be...ugh...a Marc Gasol type of player. Willy reaching Gasol's level defensively is about as likely as me reaching Zach Lowe's level of writing, but it's not entirely impossible. On offense, it's another story, as they really do have a lot in common. This comparison feels even lazier than my Ron Baker-Matthew Dellavadova comparison, but the only other ones I can think up are Luis Scola and Nikola Vucevic, who are also white European dudes. Fantastic.
Anyway, I'm about 70% sure that Hernangomez is the best center on the roster, regardless of his defensive limitations. Hornacek won't start him vs. the Cavaliers on Saturday (why are we on national TV against a powerhouse again), and he shouldn't, but it's gotta happen sooner than later. This dude is a baller. They already suck on defense, where's the harm in bringing Noah off the bench?
Ladies and gentlemen, get used to this. The KP-Hernangomez frontcourt (taking applications for nicknames, starting now) is a beautiful blend of skillsets and complimentary characteristics. Phil knew he wanted this guy, and it looks like the foreign scouting department has struck gold once again. For a team that supposedly has no future, there sure are a good amount of talented young players to watch every night.